Category Archives: Teaching & Learning Guide

Learning to Fail or Failing to Learn    

Here is a picture of me and a Sapara boy taken on my camera by a girl in Jandiayacu, the Sapara community where I began my research.

Here is a picture of me and a Sapara boy taken on my camera by a girl in Jandiayacu, the Sapara community where I began my research.

Nobody really talks about how or why his or her research failed, or what you are supposed to do when you can see that the fieldwork you are in the middle of might be doomed. Those who decide to leave their research uncompleted rarely write up their experiences, and so the lessons that can be learnt about what not to do during your research, and how to avoid a similar outcome, are forever lost in the private notebooks of the ‘failed’ researcher (Wolcott, 2005, p. 214). I am sure I can’t be the first person to be six months into their fieldwork and be seriously doubting the entire process and already wondering if it is salvageable. So I have decided to write a post about why I think my research is going wrong. (more…)

In Defense of Trigger Warnings (… as a Practice, not a Policy)

By Iconshock [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Over the past few months, numerous publications have discussed – and mostly: dismissed – the trend to incorporate so-called trigger warnings into the college classroom and syllabus. Trigger warnings have become a standard practice for articles in feminist blogs and other online media that discuss incidences of violence, sexual assault and that may contain other potentially ‘triggering’ material, with the purpose of giving readers a way to opt-out of exposing themselves to said material. As some college professors have started to incorporate this practice into their classrooms in order to warn students of potentially ‘triggering’ material – and some colleges have even discussed adopting trigger warning policies – the public reaction has been mostly negative. However, it is my position that most of these commentators have it backward and misunderstand what trigger warnings are about and can do – granted, there are examples of very poorly-done trigger warnings out there that can easily be taken as evidence for some of the critics’ fears – and I believe they can and should have a place in the sociology classroom and that they can actually play a positive and productive pedagogical role.


“Normative” Marriage in the Fourth Grade Classroom

Source: The Telegraph

Source: The Telegraph

When I picked my friend’s nine year old daughter up from school last week the first thing she said to me was, “We had to do something really weird in class today.  The teacher paired all the girls with a boy and we had to be a married couple.” It turns out the teacher was having her students work on writing dialogue and since it was right before Valentine’s Day she thought it would be cute for them to write dialogue about love and marriage.

“Not all girls want to marry a boy.  It was so lame,” my friend’s daughter told me.  ‘Lame’ was not really the word that came to my mind; I was more thinking about heteronormativity and how it is reproduced through our social institutions.


Part II: The Effects of School Criminalization

File:A classroom in Parshvanath College of Engineering.jpgA few weeks back, I contributed a post highlighting possible explanations for the rise of criminal justice based practices within schools.  Although these strategies have become popular for managing school crime, growing evidence suggests they are often overly excessive and may produce a host of unintended consequences. Serving as a sort of a Part II, this essay outlines the effects of what has been termed the “criminalization of school discipline” (Hirschfield & Celinscka 2011). As discussed below, the evidence stands against the school criminalization when considering its effects on: social equality, school performance, school crime, and other disciplinary strategies. (more…)

Explanations of Contemporary School Discipline

File:Saladeaula itapevi.jpgOver the past two decades, schools across the U.S. have adopted a host of punitive practices and policies to prevent and respond to student misbehavior (Kupchik 2010). These practices include the use of security cameras, metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs, and the full-time presence of police officers. Consequentially, the distinction between school discipline and criminal justice has become highly blurred. For a host of reasons, there has been an increase in surveillance over students and a tighter link between the education and criminal justice for a host of (Hirschfield & Celinscka 2011). The purpose of this post is to provide, from the extant literature, explanations for the rise of criminal justice based practices within schools. (more…)

No Child Left Behind…But what about programs?

File:Classroom.JPGThere can be little doubt that schools across the nation have experience notable budget cuts since the recent economic fallout. Without protection from larger economic trails, educational systems have had to manage substantial budget cuts and reductions in available resources. Across different media platforms, new articles are peppered with headlines concerning the myriad of challenges schools are now facing. Despite financial tightening and limited avenues for support, it is clear that school performance has not escaped popular attention. With initiatives like “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top”, schools must meet higher expectations within a highly competitive atmosphere – although some schools hit harder than others by adverse economic conditions. (more…)

Progressing from game theory to agent based modelling to simulate social emergence

This article discusses some of the fundamental flaws in game theory and discusses agent based modelling as a successor to model social emergence.

Axelrod (1984) made a major contribution to Game Theory in his book “Evolution of Cooperation” but thirteen years later he, dissatisfied with game theory, moves onto agent based modelling to rework his view of cooperation in his book in 1997 “The complexity of Cooperation: Agent-based Models of Competition and Collaboration”.  In a similar move, the Santa Fe Institute in the US was established in 1984 to grapple with complex social issues and used agent based modelling amongst other techniques to “collaborate across disciplines, merging ideas and principles of many fields — from physics, mathematics, and biology to the social sciences and the humanities — in pursuit of creative insights that improve our world”.  Additionally, the EU acknowledges the failure of traditional economics so adopts agent based modelling.

Agent based modelling captures the interaction between agents to simulate emergence whether at the physical or social level. NetLogo  provides an extensive library of simulations of both physical and social emergence that shows the diversity of application of agent based modelling.  These sample simulations can be readily tailored to meet the needs of social scientists.  The software is free and there is a thriving enthusiastic community support group.

Why is there a move by a prominent game theorist, the Santa Fe Institute and the EU to agent based modelling?  The article Game Theory as Dogma by Professor Kay (2005) discusses ample reasons to search for alternative techniques to model competition and collaboration  and emergence in general.  For instance.

The trouble with game theory is that it can explain everything. If a bank president was standing in the street and lighting his pants on fire, some game theorist would explain it as rational. (Kay 2005, p. 12) (more…)

Fiction in the Sociology Classroom?


Source: Sense Publishers

This summer, I tried something new with my sociology of gender class. Rather than assigning a traditional textbook or a reader, I had the class read a work of fiction based on social science research (along with a few topical nonfiction works). I was nervous to see if my students, who are used to big lecture halls and multiple choice tests, would feel comfortable discussing the novel and would come away from the class with a better understanding of the social scientific themes embedded throughout the text. But my fears quickly went away. In fact, the discussions the work of fiction inspired were some of the best of the semester.

My sociology of gender class read Low Fat Love, a social science fiction novel by Dr. Patricia Leavy. This novel is based on the author’s many years of research about pop culture, women’s identities, self-esteem, and body issues. Leavy introduces the reader to two female protagonists, Prilly and Janice, who work together at a publishing house in New York City. Both Prilly and Janice struggle with their jobs, their relationships, and their senses of self.  Prilly is a bright young woman with a promising job. Despite her many accomplishments, Prilly’s self-esteem is easily derailed by (and maybe even at times, dependent on) her relationship with Pete, a guy who actively avoids commitment.  Janice also has unfulfilling relationships, particularly with her husband, her son, and her extended family. To compensate, she throws herself completely into her work and even tries to sabotage other women by setting unrealistic expectations for them to achieve. To the outside world, Janice may seem hardworking and driven, but inside, Janice is quite sad and lonely.


Facing More with Less: Thinking about School Budgets

There can be little doubt that because of the current economic conditions, a large part of society has undergone considerable strain. Whether discussing unemployment rates, downsizing, closed up businesses, or market trends, it seems that little has been left unaffected by these financial times. Of concern for this post is how schools, specifically secondary schools, have had to adapt to and deal with the economic state. Often making top news reports on major broadcasting stations or making the front-page of newspaper outlets, it is not uncommon to hear of another school having to face financial cutbacks and crisis. It is the budgetary tightening within schools that this post considers; more specifically, when facing budget cuts, what policies and programs are left in place and which are discarded.

A mentor and I are currently writing about the financial context of certain school practices and policies. When discussing school budgets, the primary concern is with which programs – on a continuum of being financed – receive budgeted funding given both the economic situation of the school and, more broadly, the larger economy? Stated another way, are there programs and policies that remain funded while others are cut, and if so, what is the reasoning or rational behind how budgeted funds are distributed? (more…)

College Students and Social Media: Making Meaning of Everyday Activities in the Classroom…

When Harrisburg University in Harrisburg, PA attempted a week-long social media “blackout” in September 2010, national news media swarmed the campus. A “smartly dressed correspondent from NPR stalk[ed] the staircase,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, and as soon as the Chronicle itself spirited away some students for an exclusive interview, a reporter from the Associated Press came barging in. “Oh no—not another one,” one student cried out. Another, weary, explained with a sigh that he had just finished begging off the BBC.

In the end, the Chronicle headlined the outage as more of a “brownout” than a “blackout,” and NPR corroborated that conclusion with sound bites from students describing increased text messaging and some tenacious hacking. Even Jimmy Fallon jumped in on the analysis in his late-night comedy show, quipping: “Check this out: A college in Pennsylvania is blocking computer access to social-networking sites for an entire week, and then requiring the students to write an essay about the experience. Yep. The essay will be called, ‘We all have smart phones, dumb-ass.’” Nevertheless, campus officials declared the experiment a success with in-house surveys revealing that 33% of the private university’s 822 students reported feeling less stressed during the week of the outage and 21% stating they’d spent more time doing homework. These were happy fringe benefits, however, as the primary objective of the project had been somewhat more metaphysical—encouraging students to “push, prod, question and generally explore social media.” Or, as one speaker invited to campus during the week of the ban put it, to encourage dialogue around the question of:

“Why are we posting on Facebook? Why are we sharing, why are we disclosing in this way and for what purpose? Many people are already in the habit of, ‘I have to go post on Facebook, I have to go see what’s happening, I have to update my status.’ Why? You don’t have to…”

Last year I asked my Introductory Sociology students to approach this discussion from a different starting point—starting with how they actually used social media—and how they were using it to make and share meaning in their daily lives. For 24-hours, students recorded their social media interactions in written logs, describing what they did (texting, updating a status, sending a message, posting a photo, commenting on a photo, “liking” a comment, replying to a comment, tweeting, re-tweeting, and so on) and the context in which the action took place (home, dorm room, living room, classroom [alas!]), and reflecting briefly on what they felt about the interaction at the time (for example: “I hate that picture of me, so I untagged it”). I compiled the logs into a “data package” that they could read and reflect on before coming together in groups to discuss what they saw as emerging themes—meanings that they seemed to share about how they and their classmates were using social media in their daily lives.

What follows—with many thanks to my students!—is one approach to that oft-repeated wail of “WHY! Why are students posting/ tweeting/ texting status updating?” But social media use doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in a social context. Structures, disciplinary practices, cultural understandings, and interpersonal relationships shape interactions in any context. For these students, the classroom stood out as one particular context that created a need for social media use. In my own research, I argue that this is because power relationships shaping the classroom have informed students’ understandings of the classroom as a private place, a place where individuals need to “take in” information, but don’t necessarily get to connect to their own experiences, interests, and concerns while they are there. This social environment facilitates a sense of boredom among students.

Social media use during class was one of the most commonly observed themes from the data I collected (over 20,000 words of logs—and approximately 30 groups of students over the course of 3 semesters!). In the examples cited below, this theme is presented and described by students Christi G., Ellen N., Clare B., and Robby B. Particularly, these students point to the connection between their use of social media and boredom in the classroom.

Boredom During Class
(by Christi G., Clare B., Ellen N., and Robby B.; SOCY100 Spring 2011)

Often times, people get bored during class, but there are many different reasons for this. One of the more common reasons is because the professor lectures in a very quiet and monotone voice, which puts people to sleep. Another cause of boredom is general lack of interest in the class, such as someone taking a core elective that they aren’t actually interested in. Social media is sometimes seen as the answer to boredom in class, but could also be the problem. Social media is seen as a good answer to boredom, because it can be a small time commitment or an activity for the whole class period. People can talk with their friends rather than listening to lectures. Lectures are isolating because you sit and try to write everything down, and social media lets people connect with other people. Also, in large lecture halls, there is probably someone nearby on Facebook doing something potentially distracting. The person on Facebook is probably using it because they are bored with the class and looking for something to do. Another reason for being on Facebook during class would be that there’s some kind of very exciting event or conversation taking place that you want to take part in.

Example 1:
11:42am – Trying to focus in Econ but I can’t. Text other roommate telling her how boring econ is

Example 2:
12:15pm – Hopped on Facebook because I was bored in class.

Example 3:
12:00pm – I was in biology class. This class just gets boring almost every day, so I pulled out my cell phone to check if someone texted me. No text message, so I initiated a text conversation with a guy friend.

Example 4:
BBMing [Blackberry Messaging] my friend “Chris” because I am bored in [the library].

Example 5:
10:00 AM- playing wordmole on my blackberry during a very boring STAT [statistics] class.

Example 6:
12:15 am: Hopped on Facebook because I was bored in class.

12:30 am: Checked my Twitter for any mentions and @ replies from the Party tweets I put up earlier on the weekend.

12:43 am: Mentioned my roommate in a tweet that fried him up for putting up so many tweets in like 5 min. when u needs to be studying. I put it up on twitter and facebook so that everyone else would notice and fry up my roommate also.

12:45 am: My roommate replied back to be asking where am I at because Twitter can be used as a person to person communication medium.

12:48 am: I reply back with a [Tweet] “at class bored” because no one uses direct messages in college.

Example 7:
10:00 am class starts and I wish I had my laptop to keep me entertained

Example 8:
2:24 pm I hear my phone buzz but am doing a group project and don’t want to be rude so I ignore it

2:40 pm class is almost over and another member of the group checked his phone so I check mine. My cousin, A, texted me about her college visit to Ohio State and how she is jealous of our warm weather since it’s not as nice there. I have another text from C saying she fell asleep outside where I left her but is feeling better

Example 9:
8:01 PM- Bored in Physics class so I end up playing games on my phone

Example 10:
1:02pm: I texted my boyfriend during class because it was extremely boring and I needed something to occupy my brain. (Don’t worry…it wasn’t SOCY!) We texted for the rest of class and I don’t remember anything from lecture.

In short, when students examine their uses of social media sociologically, they reflect on their own identities, the social contexts in which those identities have developed, and the interactions that take place in those contexts. Through their reflections and dialogues via social media, they construct, share, and evaluate knowledge. These processes become particularly visible via social media. But when students reflect on their lived realities in their school work, sometimes they can become visible in the classroom too.